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Today’s Solar Power ‘Revolution’: Powerful Insights from Energy Experts

Posted on 4 July 2014 by greenman3610

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

A powerful message on the ‘truly disruptive’ nature of solar energy technologies and the profound changes they portent for energy generation and individual customers … drawn from a range of respected energy experts.

Coming from a range of highly respected energy analysts, the new Yale Climate Connections “This Is Not Cool” video is powerful, the words and “sound bites” striking:

  • Solar energy is “a truly disruptive technology.”
  • …in the past 10 years, “the precipitous drop in the pricing for solar, especially utility grade solar.”
  • “I’m extremely confident” that solar energy will produce a plurality of the energy, and most likely a majority,” used in the U.S. — more than any other single energy source — “in less than 20 years.”
  • “That single relationship is going to change — the old model of a generator selling to a customer. The customer’s going to be able to produce their own energy.”
  • For electric utilities, a future in which “the less electricity you sell, the more money you make.”
  • “After all, people don’t really want to buy electricity; they want the services that electricity provides.”
  • “For the first time, we’re going to buy solar for under five cents per kilowatt hour, and that puts solar competitive with wind, competitive with natural gas, competitive with coal, and competitive with nuclear. In fact, it beats them all, and that’s a revolution.”
  • “…buildings getting their own power on site…meters running backward, generating more electricity than they’re using.”
  • “…a giant distributed utility…instead of a utility monopoly.”
  • “The old model’s going to not work anymore.”
  • “This is what happened with file sharing of music, with Wikipedia, with YouTube, when millions of small players come together and they create the software and the connections, their power overwhelms…It isn’t even a competition .”

Independent videographer and regular Yale Climate Connections contributor Peter Sinclair’s new monthly video makes a powerful case for what many experts — across the political spectrum — are describing as a “revolution” in solar energy.

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Comments 1 to 26:

  1. This sounds too good to be true.

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  2. We switched on our 4kW array 12 weeks ago and have generated more than 7 times the total power our house has used since then. All our hot water has come from otherwise unused power automatically fed to the immersion heater in our cylinder, so the only gas we have used is for the cooker hob.

    The cost was half the estimate provided by an energy performance assessor less than a year ago. And our roofs face East and West (not the usually recommended South) - so with half the cells on each side we are often generating more than 1kW by 7am and after 7pm, peaking at over 3kW.

    That's using only a third of our roof area and this is supposedly-cloudy-and-rainy England.

    That's a long way of saying 'Yes, we've got a revolutionary technology here and it's accessible to ordinary people. '

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  3. Unaddressed is the question of storage. Those long cold calm winter nights cannot be ignored, and as things stand now we still need full traditional generating capacity on standby for those times.

    On a positive note, here is an exciting development on ammonia-based storage.

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  4. Now let's find a way of feeding all this cheap electricity into tractors and trucks, and into personal transport that can go futher than the local supermarket without needing a flatbed truck to get it back home.

    Once that little problem is cracked, it won't matter how much the fossil fuel industry spends on campaigns against combating climate change because people's purses will call the shots. They'll have to find another way to harm the planet and with it their kids, their country and themselves. Or better still, seek some much needed councelling.

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  5. now solar is so cheap it is powering waste... no need for silly energy audits or conservation... no need to consider the embedded energy, toxic waste, mining & c02 which is involved with manufacturing "magic solar". no need to change our lifestyles or think about the limitations of living on a finite planet with finite resources...

    woo-hoo... we are all saved... sigh

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  6. Fungelsrumpet took the words right out of my mouth.  This is fantastic news.

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  7. Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. For the physical devices – for wind, photovoltaices, solar hot water, hot air panels - the sun and wind are there, are green, are sustained. The devices that are used to capture the sun and wind’s energy are an extension of the fossil fuel supply system. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. There would be no sun or wind capturing devices with out this infrastructure. This infrastructure is not green, sustainable, or renewable. The making of the these devices inadvertently but directly supports fracking, tar sands and deep ocean drilling because of the need for this infrastructure. In addition, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is very low for all solar devices. It takes years if ever to repay the energy it took to make, install, and maintenance these devices. I invite you to view these essays. This essay has diagrams and pictures of how we get copper, aluminum, glass, black chrome – the chemicals, heavy machinery, and industrial processes that are necessary to make the devices to capture the energy of the sun and wind. and this one has similar information and includes research on ERoEI And even if you could get around the environmental degradation, the low ERoEI and could amass enough extra energy to reproduce the capturing devices and their equipment, then how about the rest of the STUFF of high tech, high energy society? and

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  8. @funglestrumpet #4

    Tractor trailers would be an excellent choice for a battery operated vehicle. The trailer has a lot of volume some of which can house a large battery array. The top of the trailer can also have solar cells though I realize it wouldn't be enough to drive the truck - maybe for running the air conditioner or heater.

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  9. @sunweb 7-Assuming all the costs are electricity here in Australia you can get $2/watt panels installed. Assuming the manufactures get half price electricity , it would only take 8 years to generate enough power to offset the usage.If you use retail rates that drops to 4 years.-I have seen wind turbines that have returns using 6 months.
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  10. sunweb @7:

    1)  Wikipedia gives an Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of 6.8 for photo-voltaic in the US, compared to 80 for coal in the US.  Assuming the invested energy comes from coal, that means each KwH of energy from photovoltaics generates only 15% of the CO2 emissions of coal over its lifetime.  That remains a very substantial gain in the task of tackling global warming, and will improve as more and more electricity is generated from low carbon energy sources.

    2) A number of studies (including Murphy and Hall 2010, from which the Wikipedia figures are drawn) show the EROI of fossil fuels is declining over time.  In contrast, that of renewable energy is improving over time.

    3)  The figures for fossil fuel EROI typically quoted are misleading as they for the thermal energy returned from combustion.  Thermal energy conversion to electricity tends to be inefficient for fossil fuels, radically reducing its EROI when the output energy is measured in terms of electricity production.  In contrast, photovoltaic and wind power are directly generated as electricity, and must pay an efficiency cost to generate thermal energy.  Therefore their EROI for electricity production is understated.  Estimates of EROI for electricity production (rather than thermal energy) give photovoltaics an EROI of 10.2 compared to the 12.8 for coal (see Hall, Lambert and Balogh, 2013, Fig 3):

     Similar efficiencies apply in transport, where the majority of thermal energy form fossil fuels is lost as heat or noise, while electric vehicles have energy efficiencies near double that of fossil fuels.

    4)  Economic analyses of the limitations of low EROI (so long as the EROI is above 1) are of limited applicability to renewable energy in that the low efficiency is at point of production.  Given that renewable energies are effectively unlimited relative to current or projected populations and economic activity over the next century, low EROI's merely require greater energy production at source from renewable resources.  The potential of Solar Breeder factories makes EROI's potentially redundant for economic analysis.

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  11. I recently found a review paper that states:

    "Even renewable energies produce local heat, although they provide a greater thermal reduction benefit by avoiding CO2 emissions.

    Photovoltaic solar panels are mainly black or dark with very low albedo and high emissivity, typically:

    • absorbing about 85% of the incoming light,
    • 15% of this is converted into electricity,
    • the remainder 70% of the energy is turned into heat.

    Millstein [see reference 93 in linked article] found that the large-scale adoption of desert PV, with only 16% albedo reduction, lead to significant local temperature increases (+0.4 ºC) and regional changes in wind patterns"


    Tingzhen Ming , Renaudde_Richter , Wei Liu , Sylvain Caillol

    "Fighting global warming by climate engineering: Is the Earth radiation management and the solar radiation management any option for fighting climate change?"

    Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 31 (2014)

    As good as solar and other renewables are, can we be sure that are actually 100% climate neutral? They don't emit CO2, but emit waste heat and change the land surface albedo. Maybe big solar farms will need be built with big mirrors incorporated, to compensate for the warming due to the lowered albedo.

    Waste heat on the other hand, is much more difficult to handle. The 2nd law of thermodynamics make impossible to recycle all of it into useful work (energy) so some amount of waste heat is unavoidable. At least "waste heat forcing" is one to two order of magnitude lower than greenhouse forcing, so at current energy growth rates there are still a few centuries before the impact is significant.

    A few centuries, however, is still extremely rapid for geological standards. I imagine a situation a few centuries in the future, when, after avoiding greenhouse global warming, the problem returns, this time with waste heat instead of greenhouse gases emissions.

    Then, since the root cause of warming is energy consumption, the only option left will be stopping the growth of energy consumption, and if necessary, even reverse it. This could mean either:

    1. decouple energy and economic growth completely. I don't know if this is physically possible
    2. switching to a steady-state economy, where the growth of GDP should tend to zero.

    What do you think?

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  12. From Peru @11, another way of saying that photovolatic cells absorb 85% of light is to say they have an albedo of 0.15.  For comparison, here are the abledos of several common surfaces:

    Surface Typical
    Fresh asphalt 0.04
    Worn asphalt 0.12
    Conifer forest
    (Summer) 0.08, 0.09 to 0.15
    Deciduous trees 0.15 to 0.18
    Bare soil 0.17
    Green grass 0.25
    Desert sand 0.40
    New concrete 0.55
    Ocean ice 0.5–0.7
    Fresh snow 0.80–0.90

    As you can see, the albedo of photovoltaic cells is comparable to that of trees and soil, and not significantly different from that of grass.  Indeed, with 15% of the incident energy being converted to electricity, the waste heat at source of a PV cell is only 60% of incident energy, 15% less than is the case with grass, and comparable to desert sand.

    It is true that the energy converted to electricity is eventually dissipated as waste heat.  However, the energy from fossil fuels is also dissipated as waste heat so that the net gain in waste heat is no greater than that from equivalent energy generation from fossil fuels (for PV cells in deserts), and much less than that for PV cells in areas naturally covered by grasses or forests.  Indeed, as electricity generation from fossil fuels is inefficient in terms of the energy content of the fuel, use of PV cells even in deserts rather than fossil fuels will reduce the current waste heat generation.

    The upshot is that generating power with PV will reduce industrial waste heat relative to current levels.  Globally, this will make us better of by a small amount (waste heat being only a minor forcing).  That is in addition to the far larger impact from reduced GHG forcing from the use of renewable energy.

    It is true that large PV farms may have significant regional effects on climate.  In that, however, they are no different from any other human development, including farming and reforestation (which generates equivalent amounts of waste heat).  If that is considered a problem, it can be offset by increasing the albedo of the infrastructure surrounding the PV cells (eg, cement roads rather that asphalt, whitened roofs).

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  13. ianw01@ 3
    My favorite energy storage system is being developed by Isentropic. It ticks all the boxes regarding cost, efficiency, non exotic material use, reproducibility at any location and old school engineering (none of that nano rubbish and complex chemistry etc, just engines, pipes and steel containers).

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  14. funglestrumpet @ 4

    It appears that tractor manufactures are replacing the hydraulic systems on some new models with electric systems. Effectively the tractor has a diesel generator on board and the wheels and attached equipment are electrically driven.

    That suggests that there is a path in the future to fully electric tractors.

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  15. Paul D @ 13:
    Thanks for the fascinating link. That round trip efficiency of 72%-80% is impressive!

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  16. ianw01 they recently posted this Youtube video:

    Which explains in detail how it (PHES) works.
    They are currently developing/building a grid level system which will be tested at a substation in the Midlands region on the UK grid.



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  17. Paul, I have to admit the PHES technology by Isentropic looks really impressive on paper. The scalable aspect is especially interesting in my opinion. I wonder how long you can keep the energy in storage without thermic losses. Still, it seems to open all sorts of possibilities. Thanks for sharing.

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  18. PhilippeChantreau @ 17

    The gas they are using is I believe Argon, which may go some way to help??

    Just found this article, which includes a photo of a prototype machine, I have not seen a photo of it before:

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  19. The pdf was interesting. The smaller scale systems they prototyped were only in the 100-200 kW range, I think. I'm envisioning an integrated solar/PHES turn key system at the scale of a regular house that would allow you to keep your refrigerator going and charge your car at night, then during the day recharge, and feed the grid when you're not home and not needing much power. If you could price the whole system, installed, at 100 grands, you could have a 200K house for 300 k with the added benefit of being truly carbon neutral or even negative over its lifetime. Such a house would likely have been priced that high anyway only 6 or 7 years ago, and for no good reason. That would make Steve Jobs look like a caveman.

    Of course, it would involve changing the ways of the old fashioned monopolistic utilities in place in the US, which have a lot of friends in the right places...

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  20. Phillippe

    "Of course, it would involve changing the ways of the old fashioned monopolistic utilities in place in the US, which have a lot of friends in the right places..."

    But there are a lot of other folks, hard-headed money people, who will vote with their check-books. In the long run (perhaps not so long) if I had to back big-money and politics against big-money and thermodynamics I would back the latter.

    The politicians may get away with protecting big-business from 'the people'. But they struggle to protect big-business from other big-business.

    Eventually even the dinosaurs were forced to look up and pay attention to the huge disruptive streak arcing across the sky

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  21. And someone from the Tea Party agreeing with left-wing renewable advocates!!!!


    This isn't just technically disruptive. It could be amazingly politically disruptive as well. The Koch's may come to regret ever starting the Tea Party.

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  22. funglestrumpet

    ""Or better still, seek some much needed councelling."

    The image of the Koch's  and similar seeking 'councelling' might just do my head in. Like we have just fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland and discovered it ain't too bad.

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  23. Well Glenn I can't say that I would ever advise to disagree with Thermodynamics...   :-)

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  24. funglestrumpet wrote: "...personal transport that can go futher than the local supermarket without needing a flatbed truck to get it back home."

    Chevy Volt? Nissan Leaf? Tesla?

    We're well past the 'local use only' stage of electric vehicles. The Volt only has a 38 mile electric range, but that is enough to cover most daily automobile usage. The Leaf's 100 mile range covers something like 98%, and Tesla's 265 mile range (more with an extra battery pack) is good for anything short of non-stop cross country driving... and even that would be possible if their battery switching stations proliferate.

    Granted, these vehicles are pricey, but the cost of rechargeable batteries is coming down almost as fast as solar... which is also helping with the need to store solar power in general.

    Solar power and electrical storage are clearly going to supplant fossil fuel electricity production over the next few decades. That has been obvious for a few years now and getting moreso all the time. The only places you see fossil fuel generation increasing are the developing world (where they are ramping up every form of power generation they can) and temporarily in places like Japan and Germany that have shut down nuclear. Everywhere else you've got renewable power, mostly solar, growing faster than everything else combined. Transportation isn't as obvious, but a conversion from petroleum to electric power is now within reach and will be helped along by the falling price of solar electric power.

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  25. Tom Curtis and From Peru, well made points; however, you fail to grasp the fact that civilizations actual use energy load is miniscule. 15 TW vs 174,000 of incoming radiation. Climate change is orders of magnitude greater, because it takes place at the planetary scale. Albedo from PV is insignificant as Tom argues well. The big thrust should be to come up with solutions that allow for economic growth without damaging the environment. One way is for our energy regime to improve the environment. The most successful life forms improve the environment with their life processes. We can do the same. Pluvinergy is my prior argument for that, but only a few hundred copies sold. Now I take great hope in article such as this, or the really excellent news about hydrogen storage in Ammonia, ianw01 provides.

    There are technical solutions, and going to zero growth sounds good, but it is not. Environmental improvement can be defined as and result in economic growth. Putting insulation in my house and adding solar lighting and heating have huge energy and comfort returns. If we design from that starting point, the world can be really lovely. We must design from that point of view.

    Now I am working on controlling sea level. It is not as impossible as it seems. It is a modification of Pluvinergy, but it makes the task quite doable, to the point that one realizes, that is the real challenge; there is no way to turn back the clock on the 40 year lag in climate change that is already in the atmosphere. The cryosphere will melt, we either do something about it or suffer the consequences.

    This kind of article is just what the doctor ordered to give us curage to confront the problems head on instead of with denial or other forms of burying our heads in the sand.

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  26. I actually find it a postive that a relatively small amount of solar PV is making fossil fuels more expensive - by shaving the lucrative peak off daytime demand. A relatively small amount of storage will shave the lucrative peak off evening demand. (Isentropic's PHES is aiming for an initial, most lucrative, 3 hours worth of storage) Ultimately a 'free' - or at least an open - energy market will see fossil fuels forced into intermittency and, already bearing a burden of costs from having overcapitalised for demand that never eventuated, they will cost more again from the losses of their most profitable demand periods - enough to become the carbon price signal that Cap and Trade, Carbon Tax or other pricing mechanisms have been resisted so strongly, have so far failed to be. The value and cost of that shrinking, intermittent output will rise to compensate, but the value of energy storage options will become increasingly apparent, especially if the climate consequences of emissions are no longer ignored on an 'out of sight, out of mind' basis.

    A broad acceptance that emissions from fossil fuels represent an unacceptable burden of consequences and costs has to underpin energy policy and energy research and energy investment. Using lowest cost fossil fuels as the benchmark and constraining limit on energy prices, when those costs do not include that externalised burden of consequences means those constraints are false and deceptive. Yet, regionally, periodically and with a large measure of predictability, they are no longer the lowest cost option; something that should have been foreseen, had  low cost enewables not been dismissed out of hand as an impossibility.  

    The least emissions - rather than simply the least cost - options for dealing with intermittency will still require preferential policy assistance but there may be, ironically, some requirement to assit power companies to retain some interim fossil fueled backup capacity whilst staving off untimely bankruptcy.

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